Teen hunger, the hidden child hunger

Micah, Matt and Jalen at food pantry on their college campus
August 24, 2021
by Ash Slupski

When we think about child hunger in the United States, we often think about hunger that affects the youngest kids. But millions of teens don’t have reliable access to food.

And it’s not just us that sometimes forgets teens may face hunger. Traditional child hunger programs and well-meaning anti-hunger advocates often overlook teens.

That’s why Feeding America partnered with Urban Institute to learn more about teen hunger and ask teens facing hunger for their solutions to hunger. Here’s what you need to know about the hidden epidemic of teen hunger.

Four facts about teen hunger in America

  1. Teen hunger is a problem.

Because of the COVID pandemic, 16 million children may face hunger – millions of those children are teenagers. Unfortunately, the exact number of teens facing hunger is unknown because national data doesn't separate kids and teens.

  1. Teens feel responsible for keeping food on the table.

When their families can’t afford food, teens want to help. They’ll get jobs to add another paycheck to the family. They’ll skip meals so their younger siblings can eat. And when jobs are hard to come by or don’t earn enough money, they make difficult choices like shoplifting food, eating at friends’ or neighbors’ homes, or dating in exchange for food or money.

  1. Hunger can hold teens back from reaching their full potential.

Kids who don’t get enough can struggle in school and social situations. And that doesn’t stop when a kid enters high school. Hunger can affect concentration, energy, and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. These side effects of hunger can lead to kids falling behind in school. Students who experience hunger are more likely to drop out of high school.

  1. Anti-hunger programs are letting teens down.

Teenagers often don’t know about free meal and grocery programs or know those programs are open to teens. Some teens may even drop their siblings off at summer meal programs without ever knowing they can join.

Many high schools don’t offer the same programs as some elementary schools, like the weekend backpack program or school pantries. When these programs are available, teens might not participate because they’re embarrassed or worry about bullying from other students.

What the Feeding America network is doing about teen hunger

Since we published our first teen hunger report in 2016, food banks, after-school programs, and youth organizations stepped up their programs for teens.

  • Food Bank of New York City offers teens free meals and service opportunities with their Supper Klub and paid summer internships leading nutrition workshops.
  • Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida trains local high school students to operate free food markets at their schools. Students learned so much that schools began offering them credit for participation.
  • Feeding the Gulf Coast provides a safer space for teens at school pantries that limits the number of students who can visit at a time.
  • Delaware Y hosts the Teen Workforce Development program to reduce barriers to finding the elusive first job and give teens the skills to succeed in their future careers.
  • Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida delivers free groceries directly to teens’ homes, so they don’t have to worry about transportation. This year, they’ll offer an online ordering platform so teens can place their family’s food order online and picked it up curbside from the food bank.

Feeding America also advocates for expanding critical programs that help families keep food on the table, like Summer EBT and the Child Tax Credit. These programs provide families with more financial resources to purchase groceries at local stores and avoid the stigma of seeking out help at school or a local food pantry. Will you join us in asking Congress to help end child and teen hunger through these family programs?